Sorry seems to be the hardest word – Clapham

A popular song by Mr Elton John, but it seems some politicians and people in positions of authority seem to have a problem with acknowledging when they are wrong and using this word.

An independent review into the Met Police handling of the Clapham vigil was published this week and vindicated the Mets handling and actions on the day. I had no doubt this would be the outcome once the full facts and background were examined in the cold light of day. Officers body worn video and verbal accounts showed the level of hostility and confrontation once a minority group started to protest. The vigil had been respectful and dignified for over 6 hours with a minimal police presence and with female officers predominantly being used in the area. One officer was permitted to give media interviews where she gave a factual and concerning account of the type of abuse she and her colleagues were subjected to in the latter stages of the gathering. It was clear the vigil had now become a protest, with speeches being given and open hostility directed towards the police officers present.

I worked many events in the Met special operations room for major public events and know there would have been a lengthy discussion    between the event commanders as to what action to take. Decision logs would have been completed with the reasoning for adapting the strategy and tactics by Gold and Silver, discussions around intervening, withdrawing, or taking no action at all. Legal powers would have been debated and the safety of the officers and all those attending taken into consideration. The inevitable `what if` questions would be outlined on the whiteboards with everyone taking an active part from loggists to tactical advisors and ultimately Gold and Silver. The Gold commander has their own room or suite which is adjacent to the Silver commander’s suite. Essentially it is a large room with whiteboards on the walls and tv screens which can show live feeds from CCTV or the Police helicopter, plus access to the radio communications from the Bronze commanders on scene managing the police units.

Once it was clear that the mood and demeanour of some of those present had changed then in my experience the Police had a very difficult decision to make but they had to make a decision. The liaison teams would have been reporting that tension was rising, and a small antagonistic group was now present. Placards were now being waved with `ACAB` on them, a clear reference towards the police `all coppers are bas***ds. As this started as a vigil, then I doubt many intelligence teams or evidence gathering teams would have been part of the allocated resources. On other events one part of their job is to recognise and report any change in tension or attendance of identified hostile individuals or groups. Once that type of information is received then ideally, the Police will publish social media updates and provide media briefings that the situation at an event was changing. This can go some way to negating subsequent criticism if Police decision making is outlined by setting the rapidly changing scene. The report highlights the lack of an identifiable and effective communications strategy on the day. This is an area that policing needs to urgently address as once a narrative is out in the public domain it can quickly become the accepted version of events irrespective of facts that may later be established.   

The choices they faced were to intervene, withdraw or take no action at all. The implication of each option was probably debated but the final decision rests with the event command team after considering the pros and cons from all those present. If I had been present, I would probably have argued for withdrawing the officers to the periphery and standing by to deal with any confrontation. In essence, let those intent on conflict with the police make the first move towards the police lines. It would then be much clearer to those watching exactly who was initiating any resulting disorder. Regardless of personal opinions or views once the decision is made by the Silver commander then officers must follow those directions. The event command team have an overview of the whole area whereas officers on the ground are only aware of what is happening in front of them. If individual officers or units decide to ignore the instructions to disperse a crowd in a certain direction, then that could compromise the safe and controlled dispersal of the crowd across the whole area. 

The decision taken on the day would be based on facts provided by those on scene and what the command team were informed of and could see. The choice they made was to intervene at the bandstand and disperse the crowd who had started to encroach to hear speeches being given. As the police moved in confrontation started with some disturbing visuals being widely recorded and distributed by some of those present. Public order policing is often fast moving and dynamic but whenever there is confrontation it is never pretty or easy to watch. The Police are working within the law in respect of using force against some who are mainly non-compliant and others who are openly hostile.

It is widely acknowledged that the images of officers restraining individuals, in the main females, were distressing, concerning, and shocking. That would have been the last outcome any officer on scene or in the control room would have wanted. No officer works on a public order event like this and wants to have physical confrontation with anyone. Immediately after those videos and images were being shared there was widespread condemnation of the Police and calls for the Met commissioner to resign. Cressida Dick stood her ground and welcomed the independent review into the policing of the vigil. I have met her on several occasions, she understands policing and specifically the challenges of public order policing. She empathises with the officers managing and working those events and she totally gets the difficulty of the role involved. She knew the officers making those exceedingly tough choices and the decision-making process they would have been taking which would be methodical and fully documented.

It is commendable that Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire & Rescue Services (HMICFRS) have completed their review in such a timely fashion. There would have been many different groups and individuals to speak to and a vast amount of social media accounts to view and consider. There were several main-stream media outlets who ran significant coverage of the vigil and resulting disorder together with debates and discussions on tv and radio shows. It is noteworthy that the subsequent HMICFRS report has barely figured in being reported in the same degree by MSM and when it has, the only criticism of note in the report around communication, has been the focal point of many of the reports.

Politicians from all parties, the London mayor, celebrities, and various groups were all quick to pass judgement and many looked for someone to blame with Cressida Dick being the obvious and easy target.  Retractions and apologies have been noticeable in their absence from almost all the critics who denounced the report and questioned the independent status of HMICFRS. The HMICFRS have rarely been supportive of policing, understandably so given the nature and status of their inspections.

Their role is predominantly to inspect forces and highlight inconsistencies and areas for improvement. For this report to state so categorically that the Met Police have been totally vindicated in their decision making and actions on the night is unlikely but very welcome. Sir Tom Winsor has previously been widely criticised within policing for some of his previous comments and reports. That factor should not be used to pass judgement on the accuracy of a report produced by one of his Inspectors.

The fact that even Mr Winsor acknowledges “Officers are our fellow citizens, invested by the community to keep the community safe.  They rely upon and are entitled to receive public support when they act lawfully, sensitively and proportionately; in this case, in the face of severe provocation and in very difficult circumstances, they did just that.”1

This should for most impartial observers confirm the balance and truth of this report.

 You would expect that many of those who were quick to jump to a conclusion and post overly critical comments would now apologise and acknowledge that they were wrong. Policing has made many mistakes and will continue to do so, it is not an exact science dealing with people and incidents that involve such high emotions and reactions. Society has rightly questioned policing over many previous incidents and when found in the wrong we have seen forces and senior officers publicly apologise and state lessons will be learnt. Surely, we should expect the same from our political leaders and individuals who wish to be listened to and taken seriously. They should lead by example but that appears to be missing here as an officially commissioned review has found many of the comments inaccurate, unwarranted, and demonstrated a lack of respect for policing. There is no doubt that many of those comments will be remembered long after the subsequent HMICFRS report has been filed away. 

Words came easily for many in the aftermath of a vigil on Clapham common that descended into a protest and disorder directed towards police officers. It now seems that the hardest word for those same people seems to be sorry………

1= comment sourced from https://www.justiceinspectorates.gov.uk/hmicfrs/news/news-feed/metropolitan-police-acted-appropriately-at-the-sarah-everard-vigil/